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Essay Writing Skills: Planning Your Essay



Essay Writing Skills: Planning an Essay

Essay and Thesis Writing Series



Grant Andrews

Academic Coaching



Copyright © 2017 by Grant Andrews


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher at the address below.

Academic Coaching

Editing, Coaching and Counseling Services

For Thesis Writing



Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Understanding the Topic

Chapter 3: Brainstorming Ideas

Chapter 4: Finding Your Thesis Statement

Chapter 5: Planning Paragraphs

Things to Remember

Academic Coaching

Academic Coaching is run by Dr. Grant Andrews and Malan van der Walt

The Academic Coaching team offers free content to help anyone writing a thesis, essay or article. We provide free short books on every topic relating to thesis writing, as well as step-by-step guides on how to plan, research and write your academic piece. If you would like to request that we compile a tutorial or eBook that you need, or if you have any questions, please email us at [email protected].

Our services also include editing, coaching and counseling. We coach our clients through all stages of essay and thesis writing, and host online workshops and writing marathons. You can find our pricing guide on our website, www.writeyourthesis.com.

We hope this short guide can help you to make a success of your academic work!

Chapter 1: Introduction

If you’re still learning how to write an academic essay, it can be extremely challenging. There are a lot of skills involved and a lot of elements that you have to include to write a good essay. In this short guide, we’ll be looking at all of the steps that go into planning an essay. There are many more short books about essay writing on our website, www.writeyourthesis.com, so once you’ve planned your essay, head over there to learn about the next step in your essay writing process.

This short guide should take you less than 30 minutes to work through, and we’ll cover everything you need to know about planning an essay. We’ll look at how to understand all of the requirements of the topic or question, looking at instruction and content words in the topic. We’ll discuss how to generate ideas through brainstorming, mind-maps or free writing. We’ll cover refining those ideas in order to construct your essay’s thesis statement. And finally, we’ll talk about planning paragraphs so that you know exactly which ideas you’ll be looking at throughout your essay.

Once your essay is properly planned, it’ll be a lot easier and much quicker to write it. We suggest that if you are currently working on an essay, you go through each of the steps in this guide as you read through it, so that by the time you reach the end you will have your essay fully planned.

To start, let’s look at how to understand your essay question or topic.

Chapter 2: Understanding the Topic

Your essay topic might seem very simple and straightforward when you first read it, but there could be a lot of aspects that are being asked of you that you don’t see the first time you look at the topic. You need to be sure that your essay answers all of the different components of the question, and doesn’t provide any information which is irrelevant to the topic being discussed.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine that this is the essay topic that you’re given:

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince, the titular Prince feels torn between his wanderlust and his love for the rose he cared for on his home planet. Write an essay of 3000 words in which you discuss and compare the Prince’s relationships with the rose and the fox he meets on Earth. Do you think that the Prince is comforted by the fox?

There are many different elements being asked of you, and in order to get a passing grade for your essay, you need to address all of them.

The first things to look out for in an essay topic are the instruction words. These are words that tell you what type of essay you should write, what types of actions you should take and how your response should look. These are words like analyze, discuss, compare, consider, and many more. You need to make sure that you know what each different instruction word is asking you to do.

Instruction words will usually tell you what type of essay you should write. If you are told to compare two or more things, you are writing a comparative essay. If you are told to discuss one topic in detail, you are writing a discursive essay. You can find more information about these different types of essays on the Academic Coaching website, but for now, let’s try and look at the instruction words in the topic above.

You could highlight the instruction words in your topic so that they stand out. For example:

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince, the titular Prince feels torn between his wanderlust and his love for the rose he cared for on his home planet. Write an essay of 3000 words in which you discuss and compare the Prince’s relationships with the rose and the fox he meets on Earth. Do you think that the Prince is comforted by the fox?

One of the instruction phrases that was a bit vaguer was the final one highlighted, namely “Do you think,” which is instructing you to give an opinion. You’ll need to read your topic carefully to pick up on any subtle instructions like this.

Based on this, we can see that we are being required to write an essay that does three things, namely discuss something, compare something and give an opinion on something.

To find out what we are discussing, comparing and opining about, we have to look out for the second type of keywords in essay topics, namely content words. These are words that tell us what the content of our essays need to be. These words help us to understand what the instruction words are asking us to do. It’s important to remember that you need to include all of the content words in your final essay. If you don’t, your essay will be incomplete.

Let’s underline the content words so that they stand out, but look different from the instruction words.

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince, the titular Prince feels torn between his wanderlust and his love for the rose he cared for on his home planet. Write an essay of 3000 words in which you discuss and compare the Prince’s relationships with the rose and the fox he meets on Earth. Do you think that the Prince is comforted by the fox?

The content words are any keywords that the instruction words are asking you to look at. I’ve also included the phrase “3000 words” since it lets us know how long our essay should be, thus telling us something about the content of our essay.

Once you’ve highlighted all of the instruction and content words, read through the topic a few more times to see if there are any other important things that you’re being asked to do in your essay. Then, make sure that you understand each individual term or phrase on its own. Do you know what it means to discuss or compare something? If not, consult some of the resources on the Academic Coaching website which can give you more information about this.

Once you understand exactly what’s expected of you, you can move on to the second phase of planning your essay, which is brainstorming and creating a mind-map of your ideas.

Review Your Learning:

p<>{color:#000;}. Instruction words tell you how you should construct your essay. They clarify essay styles and methods of analysis

p<>{color:#000;}. Content words tell you what needs to be included in your essay. These are the keywords that you need to touch on, the points you need to cover and the elements you need to consider.

Chapter 3: Brainstorming Ideas

Now that you know what the question or topic is asking of you, you can start to generate ideas of what you would like to include in your final essay. The important thing to remember about generating ideas is that the ideas don’t have to be perfect just yet. In fact, they can be a bit out-of-the-box right now. Give yourself some freedom to be creative with your ideas. You will have to cut out some of them later, so it’s better to have too many ideas than too few.

The first thing to do is to look at all of the instruction and content words you’ve highlighted and to form a basic mind-map of the structure your essay will follow. This will help you to generate ideas for each paragraph and for your thesis statement. This structure might change later, but it’s useful to keep it in mind at the start.

I’ve given a new topic below, with the instruction and content words pointed out in the same way we did before.

Discuss the implications of Brexit, looking at how it will affect the British economy and how it will affect the relationships between nations within the United Kingdom. Based on current political trends, explain the effect on the European Union if another country decided to rescind its membership.

Again, the topic is very complex, and you’ll need to cover a lot of ground. Let’s list all of the points you have to cover:

Implications of Brexit

Effect on the British Economy

Effect on relationships between nations in UK

If another country rescinds membership

Link to current political trends

Effect on the EU

So these are the four basic points you are being asked to write about, under two broad headings. You can see that these different points would very easily make good paragraphs in your essay if you kept the structure the same. Once we have the main points we need to cover, we can structure our paragraphs in a mind-map:

Paragraph 1: Introduction

Paragraph 2: Explain Brexit

Paragraph 3: Effect on British Economy

Paragraph 4: Effect on Nations in UK

Paragraph 5: Explain how nation could rescind membership

Paragraph 6: Explain Current Political Trends

Paragraph 7: Explain effect on European Union

Paragraph 8: Conclusion

You’ll notice that this basic essay outline has been completely lifted from the topic given above, except for two paragraphs, paragraph 2 and paragraph 5, which I felt were necessary to explain some basic facts that the reader might not know so that they can understand the rest of my points.

This might seem like a lot of progress to make in a short time, but you’re not done planning your essay yet. Even though you know what you’ll write about and the basic structure of your ideas, you don’t know what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. You know which paragraphs the question is asking you to write, but you don’t know what the content of those paragraphs will be.

The next step is to try and brainstorm some ideas that you could use in your essay. You could think of topics or points that might relate to the question you were asked, and list as many of them as you can. Give yourself ten minutes on a stopwatch and spend the entire time brainstorming everything you know that might in some way be related to the topic you are writing about.

Have a look at the short list of ideas I’ve compiled below. Any idea that comes to mind should be put down on paper, and you can weed out the weaker ones later. These are all the things that might jump to mind when you think of the effects of Brexit in the context of your essay topic:


Travel problems

Trade agreements might be affected

France shows signs of wanting to leave

The British economy dipped after Brexit

Rise in right-wing politics

You could add many ideas to this list, and you’ll see that we now already have a large amount of useful ideas that we could incorporate into our essay.

The next step in planning your essay is to see which of these ideas are actually useful to respond to the essay question. You could cut out all of the ones which seem like they might not help you to make the point you want to make. Then, try and list the useful ideas under each paragraph in your mind-map to see how they fit in with the essay you want to write. This will give you a much clearer idea of what you should be doing in each paragraph. For example, let’s just look at Paragraph 3 and how we would list relevant ideas under that:

Paragraph 3: Effects on British Economy

p<>{color:#4472C4;}. Unemployment

p<>{color:#4472C4;}. Trade agreements might be affected

p<>{color:#4472C4;}. The economy dipped after Brexit

Now we have three points that we want to discuss under paragraph 3. Try and do this for all of the paragraphs in your essay before you move on to the next step, which is about writing a thesis statement.

The final kind of brainstorming which I’ll discuss here is for those times when you’re sitting in front of a blank screen or piece of paper and you can’t seem to get words down on paper. What I always do in those times is something called free writing. Free writing is about trying to write in a slightly more structured way, with full sentences, but this time you don’t stop writing until a set amount of time has elapsed. You can give yourself five or ten minutes, and write as much as you can during that time. Try and fill a page or even two pages during this time. You don’t have to worry about whether your writing is making sense. Don’t go back and erase anything, even if you make spelling or grammar errors. Just keep on writing whatever comes to mind on your topic. This is a method of jolting your brain into thinking broadly about a topic, and it can be very useful during your planning phases. Once you’re done with the free writing exercise, go back over what you’ve written and you’ll often find a lot of useful content that you can transfer to the first draft of your essay. You can transfer the useful ideas or sentences into your mind-map.

Review Your Learning:

p<>{color:#000;}. Use the content and instruction words to form a basic outline of the structure of your essay

p<>{color:#000;}. Brainstorm ideas that you could use to fill out the paragraphs of your essay

p<>{color:#000;}. Rework your mind-map to include only the useful and relevant ideas

p<>{color:#000;}. Use free writing to get ideas on paper

Chapter 4: Finding Your Thesis Statement

A thesis statement can be defined as a very brief statement of what the main point or contention of your essay or dissertation is. Essentially, you are stating what you will be writing about. However, there’s a little more to writing a good thesis statement than only this basic function.

You can find an entire guide and eBook on how to write a thesis statement at the Academic Coaching website, www.writeyourthesis.com. We’ll go through the basics right now so that you can see how to use a thesis statement in planning your essay.

A thesis statement needs to do the following:

p<>{color:#000;}. Be an answer to the main question (direct or indirect) posed in your given topic

p<>{color:#000;}. Steer the course of your essay or thesis

p<>{color:#000;}. Clearly state your argument or main point

p<>{color:#000;}. Indicate the type of writing that you are doing

p<>{color:#000;}. Not just state something known, but state something disputable that requires support or evidence

p<>{color:#000;}. Make the reader interested in your essay

(Remember, if you need any of these points explained in more detail, simply go to the Academic Coaching website.)

A thesis statement needs to act like a rudder that steers the massive ship (your essay or thesis) in the same direction. You can’t have an essay where you have a million tiny boats all going in different directions. This will confuse the reader, and you won’t be able to make a compelling point. Whenever you’re worried that you might be veering off course, you can just turn back to your thesis statement which will show you whether your points are all aligning with the same intention.

This means that your thesis statement is that one part of your essay that ensures that the whole body of work has meaning and is coherent. Your thesis statement comes at the start of your written work, in the introduction, and it tells the rest of your essay which direction it should be going in. This helps your entire thesis or essay to make sense and for the various points you are making to all lead to one conclusion.

Your thesis statement needs to be a clear, direct and succinct answer to the questions being posed in your essay topic. You don’t simply repeat the essay topic as your thesis statement, but you provide an answer to the direct or indirect questions, an answer that informs how you’ll write the rest of your essay.

Let’s look at an example. If you are given this essay topic:

Compare the healthcare system of the US to the system in Sweden in terms of financial implications, health outcomes and public opinion. Which system is preferable for advanced democratic countries?

A thesis statement will have to answer the main questions being asked by the topic, and not simply reiterate the topic. The following would be a weak thesis statement:

In this essay, I will compare the healthcare systems of the US and Sweden and tell you which one I think is better.

The author is not answering the question, but merely saying that at some point they will answer the question. The reader needs to know the answer right at the start of an essay, and the rest of the essay needs to offer support for that answer.

A much better thesis statement would look as follows:

In this essay, the healthcare systems of the US and Sweden will be compared, and it will ultimately be shown that the Swedish system is far preferable in advanced democratic countries since it involves drastically lower costs for individuals, it enjoys greater public support and it has much better health outcomes.

You’ll see that the second thesis statement is much better because it actually answers the main question and gives reason for this answer. Even if the student had chosen the US system as the preferable one, if they had given good reasons for it, and if they rest of their essay could support it, they would receive a good grade for the essay. It’s not necessarily about the answer you give, but it’s about the way you support it with evidence and logic that counts.

Your thesis statement is placed in the introduction of your essay, so that the reader knows exactly what your essay will be about. In a good academic essay, every single point and every paragraph will be linked to the thesis statement, and will support it with more evidence and explanation. Once you have a good, clear thesis statement, it’s like you’ve been handed the middle piece to a puzzle, and all of the other pieces have to fit around that central piece.

Let’s look at one more example, and then draw a mind-map of what the essay will look like with the thesis statement at the center. The topic is as follows:

Discuss the symbolism of the red hood in the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood”.

Your thesis statement could be something like this:

This essay will show that the red hood symbolizes resilience and danger in the character of the little girl.

And your mind-map could look like this:

You’ll notice the thesis statement right at the center. That’s where it belongs: it’s the one thing that each of your paragraphs needs to fit with, and needs to support. The arrows between the thesis statement and each paragraph are pointing in both directions. This is because your thesis statement informs your paragraphs, and your paragraphs support your thesis statement; there is a reciprocal relationship, or a give-and-take link, between the thesis statement and each of your paragraphs. Notice how your thesis statement has helped you to plan your essay here in much more detail. If you understand this section, you’re now ready to move on to the final part of planning.

Review Your Learning:

p<>{color:#000;}. A thesis statement is the main idea of your essay

p<>{color:#000;}. It shouldn’t just restate your question, but provide a succinct answer to it

p<>{color:#000;}. Your thesis statement provides the direction for your entire essay. All of the other points should link to it and support it

p<>{color:#000;}. Draw a mind-map with your thesis statement at the center and all of your paragraphs branching out from it

Chapter 5: Planning Paragraphs

You now have everything you need to plan your essay. Once you’ve completed all of the steps in this guide, you should know exactly what your answer to the question is, as well as all of the points you are going to make in order to support that answer.

However, there’s one more aspect of planning that is vital: knowing the field and being able to provide citations and data in order to support your points. You’ll need to show that you’ve thought about all of the different angles to a point, and that you’ve consulted the experts in the field, so that your essay can have authority and your ideas can gain more validity. That’s why it’s important to plan the structure and content of your body paragraphs in some detail as well.

For a detailed discussion of what goes into a body paragraph, you can once again go to the Academic Coaching website for more information. I’ll run through some of the basics of a paragraph with you here so that you know how to plan your paragraphs before you start writing them.

A body paragraph in an academic essay has one main point of discussion. Each paragraph looks at one different aspect of your argument; having more than one point in any paragraph usually comes across as disorganized and shows that you might not have planned your essay well.

A good paragraph is made up of three parts. The first part is the topic sentence, where you let the reader know what your paragraph will be about. Your topic sentence is extremely basic, merely indicating the main point that your paragraph will focus on. Your topic sentence should flow from the previous paragraph in a logical way, and it should advance your argument, meaning that it shows how the new idea that you’re introducing fits in with the rest of the points you’ve already made. For the essay on “Little Red Riding Hood” given in the previous chapter, your topic sentence for paragraph 2 could look something like this:

The resilience of the girl in the story can be seen in the fact that she is surrounded by danger, but never runs away from it.

You’ve linked the paragraph to the main idea by stating that the girl is resilient, and you’ve introduced the point that your current paragraph will focus on, namely the danger that the girl is surrounded by. The reader immediately understands what the paragraph will be about and why you are writing the paragraph, because it advances the argument you are already making about how the girl is strong and resilient, and how the red hood represents these traits.

The second component of your body paragraph is called evidence or support. This is where you give some citations and look at all of the various aspects of the point that your paragraph focuses on. You might give examples of the point you are trying to make, such as pointing to the wolf as evidence of the danger in the story. This part of your paragraph is also where you show the research that you’ve done and how the research fits into your essay.

The final component of a body paragraph is explanation. In this section, you explain how the evidence you’ve presented supports your thesis statement. How do all of the examples, research or citations that you’ve presented in this paragraph support not only the main point of your paragraph, but the main focus of your entire essay? This section should clarify this in a few sentences.

You can find examples of good paragraphs on the website, but let’s go back to talking about your planning. Now that you know what goes into a paragraph, it will help you tremendously to plan your paragraphs in a lot of detail. Do as much research on your topic as you can, and every time you stumble upon a new citation or piece of data that might fit into one of your paragraphs, pencil it into your mind-map. Rearrange the layout of your paragraphs, or delete points that seem less interesting when you think of something that could better make your point.

I even advise my students to go as far as giving themselves a word limit for each paragraph. If you know that your essay should be 3000-words long, decide how many words each paragraph might need, and don’t waste too much time on a paragraph once you’ve reached your word limit. This will help to ensure that your essay is balanced, and that you don’t spend half your essay only talking about one small aspect and then quickly try to cram the rest of the points you want to make into only a few sentences once you’ve run out of space.

Finally, planning your paragraphs is also about planning the order that your paragraphs will be presented in. Make sure that the order is logical, and that your argument is developing with each new paragraph. If you have any explanations, they shouldn’t be found in the final few paragraphs of your essay, but should probably be right at the front. If you can arrange your paragraphs logically and ensure that they flow from one to the next, you’ll have a much more persuasive argument and a much more compelling essay.

Things to Remember

You’ve now been introduced to all of the skills you need in order to plan your essay. When you’re ready to start writing your essay, you can find more detailed guides at www.writeyourthesis.com.

Are you feeling unsure of your academic strengths and challenges? We offer a free, personalized report on your readiness for writing an academic essay or thesis, as well as tips and guidelines to improve your skills. Simply take the 10-minute quiz at the following link, and your free report will be emailed to you: [+ www.writeyourthesis.com/p/dissertation-readiness-survey.html+]

If you still struggle with your academic writing, our team at Academic Coaching also offers editing so that you can be sure you’re handing in the best piece of work every time you write an essay or when you work on your thesis. Visit www.writeyourthesis.com to get a free quote. We will also help you to plan and structure your essay or thesis if you’re not sure how to do this, and we offer academic counseling if you struggle with writer’s block, time management or other challenges.

All the best with your studies!

Grant and Malan

(P.S.: If you’d like to receive links to all of our academic writing tools as soon as they’re released, sign up for our mailing list today. Go to: www.writeyourthesis.com and sign up in the sidebar.)



Essay Writing Skills: Planning Your Essay

A quick and easy guide to planning your essay This short guide will give you the tools you need to plan your essay effectively, so that you're sure you're answering the question and that you construct a good, effective piece of writing. Learn how to understand the question, brainstorm ideas, find your thesis statement and plan paragraphs before you start writing. Whether you're writing an essay or a master's or doctoral thesis, this guide will be useful for making sure that you start your journey of academic writing on the right foot. You'll be able to master the skill in just over 30 minutes. The guide is written by Dr. Grant Andrews, who has been teaching academic writing for years, and who knows the common pitfalls that students experience in academic writing.

  • ISBN: 9781370314188
  • Author: Grant Andrews
  • Published: 2017-07-10 17:35:12
  • Words: 4646
Essay Writing Skills: Planning Your Essay Essay Writing Skills: Planning Your Essay